BRADENTON -- Richard Draper no longer feels lost without his guide dog, Andie -- his beloved "eyes."
"I get my guide dog back," the 58-year-old said as he sat in his Bradenton home this week. "I'm no longer grounded in the house. I couldn't be happier."
Andie, who suffered puncture wounds in a Jan. 4 attack by other dogs, has been cleared by her veterinarian to return to work. Draper, who is legally blind with a little distorted vision, was given Andie 2 1/2 years ago by the nonprofit Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Two dogs came out of Manuel Welborn's garage on the afternoon of Jan. 4 and went after Andie, according to a Manatee County Animal Services activity card. The female guide dog had been out for a walk with Draper along the 4000 block of Southern Parkway.
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"Draper was not bitten,
however, his guide dog, Andie, a female Lab, did have blood spots under her neck," the document stated.
Draper, who first spoke to the Bradenton Herald several days after the attack, remembers yelling at the first dog to stop. He soon found himself in the median during the scuffle, halfway across the street from Robert H. Prine Elementary School. He tried to kick at the dog that lunged at Andie. Another dog then grabbed his leg, Draper said.
Robert Hodgin, who lives in the neighborhood, was walking his golden retriever when he heard the commotion between Draper, Andie, and three dogs. He jumped in to give Draper some relief.
An Animal Services officer later cited Welborn for dog at large causing injury. Welborn declined to comment Wednesday about the attack on Andie.
"We're super excited that she's strong-willed enough to have dealt with the trauma," said Suzy Wilburn, Southeastern Guide Dogs' director of Admissions and Graduate Services. "Sometimes it doesn't happen that way. It all depends on the dog and what they're willing to put up with. We're happy for Richard and Andie because they're a great team together."
Wilburn said a trainer with the organization first went to Draper's house to see if Andie would want to return to work.
"We showed her the harness and asked her to put it on," she said. "By wagging her tail and sticking her head through the harness, she told us that she was willing to do it."
The trainer then took Draper and Andie around their neighborhood to see if the dog would be confident in her work. Last Friday, two trainers staged interactions between Andie and one of the trainers' two dogs -- which Draper described as a type of pitbull and a type of shepherd dog.
"She showed no fear, no stress and so the trainers were happy," Draper said. "They said they don't see any reason why I couldn't start working her again."
According to Wilburn, the organization is going to still watch Andie and make sure something doesn't trigger trauma in her brain.
"It could happen in her future, but the likelihood of that happening is very low," she said.
Andie's return to work is something the family has been praying for, said Draper's wife, Sonia Draper.
"We were hoping that would happen," she said. "The trainers know what they're doing because they've done this for many, many years."
Still, Sonia is concerned about Andie running into loose dogs like on the day of attack.
"It changes you a little. It changes how your reactions are going to be," she said. "All in all, I'm happy. This is what we wanted. We wanted her to be able to work and, hopefully, if she runs into loose dogs, she'll be great too."
After some time talking about Andie's recovery, Draper looked at her nestled on his lap and asked, "Ready to go to work?"
Frozen for only a second, the guide dog jumped out of his lap excitedly. Her leash was clipped on, and the pair stepped out of the house into the bright sun. Andie's tail wagged as Draper placed the harness on her. "Please don't pet me. I'm working," a yellow sign on the harness reads.
Together, they walked down the driveway for a nice stroll in their neighborhood.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo.